Early Childhood Theories – Maria Montessori

Want to watch the video version of this post? You can do that right here for Part 1here for Part 2.

Today we’re going to talk about Maria Montessori! This has been requested a few times in the Posse because a LOT of you are looking at daycares and preschools with the Montessori name attached to it and don’t really know what that means- so I’m going to give you a CRASH COURSE so that you feel equipped and confident in making that important decision. 

Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in Italy. She was the first woman to graduate from medical school in Italy- which she did in 1896 with a specialization in paediatrics. She opened her first Casa Dei Bambini- which translates to Children’s House- in 1907 in the slums of Rome. By 1913 there were almost 100 schools in the US following her methods, in 1922 she was appointed the government’s school inspector, and in 1934 she was forced to leave Italy due to Mussolini’s fascism. She died in Holland in 1952. So you can already see- there was some overlap to her life with Vygotsky. Vygotsky knew of her, but she didn’t really know of him due to Vygotsky being kind of hidden behind the iron curtain.

So what was Montessori all about? One of my favourite quotes from her is this:

“The Greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say “the children are now working as if I did not exist.”

She REALLY believed in working yourself out of a job. Which is quite frankly our goal as parents- isn’t it? She was BIG on fostering independence and self-sufficiency and COMPETENCE. Now if you’ve been around for a while you know that I help parents raise confident, COMPETENT, well-behaved kids…so I really like and am influenced by Montessori in that.

She believed that in order for children to learn, they needed to be comfortable, and in order to be comfortable, they needed tools and materials that fit them. A hallmark of a true Montessori classroom is child-sized furniture, child-sized bathrooms, child-sized tools, child-sized kitchen. And that these things that fit them needed to be REAL. None of this giving a child a butter knife and telling them to cut a carrot- she stressed, and I really agree- that it’s more dangerous to give a child a “safe” tool that can’t do the job vs. giving them an appropriate tool and teaching them how to use it. Because when we give them fake tools to do a real job, we undermine their…say it with me: COMPETENCE!

So she was really invested in creating child-centered environments. So much so that one of her schools she had the staircase specially designed so that it fit a child’s stride better. One of her central beliefs was that children learn without conscious effort from their environment- there’s a big difference from Vygotsky- who believed children learn best from a More Knowledgeable Other (Teacher, Guide, Parent etc). Neither is WRONG. Both are right! So to that end- their environment had to be beautiful, and orderly, and full of text, and tailored to their interests. She was really adamant about the sensory experience being vital to a child’s learning. And I’m sure if you’ve spent even a hot second on Pinterest you can see that influence today- sensory experiences are ALL THE RAGE. But its kind of been taken out of that context of the sensory experience of the environment and now the immersive sensory experience of the activity is top billing, and I dare say Maria wouldn’t be too pleased with that.

So further to that, she was really big into low, open shelves that were well labelled so that kids could access the things they need without an adult. She felt that children should be able to find their tools and materials independently and that if we take the time to label things appropriately- meaning with a drawing AND text- and if you’ve participated in any of my workshops or seen any of my materials on visuals you’ve got a good understanding of that. And that content is slowly being added to the Brain Skills Play Blueprint because it is SO vital to executive functioning. So there’s that overlap with Vygotsky.

And of course, this is all in the endeavour for competence and responsibility. Children who are not allowed to do something for themselves cannot learn how to do it. Children need to be allowed to take reasonable risks and given the time to do difficult things for themselves. She used the word “serve”- as in parents are too quick to SERVE their children vs giving them opportunities to do things for themselves. And this has blowback- because she asserted that the more you manage children, the harder your job will be. The more we try and micro-manage and control them, the harder they push back. She really wanted teachers and parents to give children space to try and do it for themselves because her belief was that children should be given the opportunity to do everything they are capable of. When I was in early intervention this was kind of our mantra- Never do for a child what they can do for themselves.

Which I had to remind myself of constantly, and still do- but then, working with kiddos who quite frankly faced more challenges just getting up in the morning than most children face all week- I often felt compelled to do more for them to “make it easier” or “give them a break.” And EVERY TIME I DID it blew up in my face- they didn’t want my help! They knew they could do it by themselves, THEY knew they were competent, and the best way for me to help them was to just get out of their way. And this is still hard for me as a Mom to remember because I’m often rushed and frazzled and little kids take time to do things- watching my 3-year-old cut a banana into rounds for his little brother takes 15 minutes where it would take me 2, and my 16-month-old is MELTING DOWN on the floor….but HE CAN DO IT! And he does it a lot faster when I stop hovering and get the hell out of the way. So I’m honestly considering getting a decal made for my living room so I can see that “Never do for a child what they can do for themselves” as a reminder. Because that’s really hard.

I’d love for you to pop in the comments a time where you had a really hard time backing off and letting your child do what they could do for themselves. Where you served your child too much.

So Maria dictated that children be given lots of open-ended time- so they could figure those things out without pressure. And she really despised it when adults would pull children away from something they were engaged in. She stressed that that should only be done when absolutely necessary. Which she suggested being determined by closely observing the children. She felt the best way to get to know children is to watch them. To take the time to look at them and what they’re doing and use those observations to inform what you do that day, what materials to provide, what to keep in the environment and what to take away and replace with something different. Again- this is something I incorporated as a Developmental Specialist and continue to as a parent, and instruct my clients to do.

I have shared the story of a little boy I worked with who for anonymity’s sake I will call Ben. Ben was being super disruptive in class, so I was asked to come in and see if I could get him to shape up because I was reporting- in our sessions at his home- that he was capable of listening and following directions and using his words, etc. etc. But at school, he was a holy terror. So they asked me to come in and be at school with him and see if I couldn’t turn things around. And the first two days, I just watched him. I just sat and observed. And they weren’t lying to me. He was being a hellion. And I tried a few things and it wasn’t helping and then I noticed that when it was time for rest- he was in a full day kindergarten class that had a “nap time” for two hours in the afternoon- so when it was time for “nap” and they turned the lights out, he behaved great. And when I told the teacher this her initial reaction was “Oh he just really needs the rest, he loves nap time.” and I suggested we try doing the afternoon with the lights off to see how Ben responded to which, she agreed. And he was great! No behaviour problems.

He could hear the fluorescent lights buzzing. He was misbehaving because he genuinely couldn’t hear the teacher giving instruction. That was the problem. And this was a while ago…before LEDs were really a thing just yet so they kept the overhead lights off and brought in incandescent floor lamps and his behaviour did a 180 overnight. That’s the power of observation. That’s the power of watching children and seeing what it is they need. The way she put it was “watching children to provide the ideas.”

So…when it comes to looking for daycare or preschool- one thing you have to keep in mind is that Montessori’s theories are SO foundational to modern early childhood education that her influence is in EVERY SINGLE PRESCHOOL PROGRAM- everywhere. We take her ideas for granted now. But every preschool and daycare has small furniture and small child-sized bathrooms. We ALL have kid-sized cups and cutlery. Show of hands- who has one of those children’s chairs that look like an overstuffed armchair from Pottery Barn? ALL THAT STUFF is because of Montessori. There has been a renewed focus on observation and what’s called “emergent curriculum”- so watching what the kids do and planning off of that…not because of Montessori, because of Reggio Emilia- which we’ll talk about another week- but Reggio Emilia IS A CITY IN ITALY and they were heavily influenced by Montessori! So her ideas are just coming from another avenue.

So it’s important to recognize that- in North America- there are no controls on the name Montessori. ANYONE can slap it up on their sign. So you need to understand what to look for in a program if you truly want (and are going to pay for) a Montessori program. Also, understand that there are many “neo- Montessori” programs which incorporate the foundational theories of Montessori education but adapt to fall in line with current research and best practice. Because she was REALLY ahead of her time but she wasn’t clairvoyant- she got a LOT of stuff right, and some things were off base. So in short- know what her teachings were- and if you are really looking to better understand her teachings before you start searching out a program- I really recommend the book Dr Montessori’s Own Handbook: A Short Guide to her Ideas and Materials, which is an abridged version of her writings. But she’s everywhere. She’s in everything. She is the mother of modern early childhood education and no matter whether you send your child to a Montessori program, or a neo-Montessori program, or a Reggio Emilia based program or a Tools of the Mind program…she’s everywhere. She’s in everything.

So…I hope that that gave you a better grasp of who Maria Montessori was and what she stood for. If you’re having a hard time with the whole “don’t do for a child what they can reasonably do for themselves” thing…I really encourage you to take a look at and download my Scripts for Managing Crazy-Making Behaviour…a lot of the content is built off that principle and I think you’ll find it very helpful to moving in that direction of helping your children begin to achieve more competence. It’s a totally free thing- you just have to click the link up in the description and you’ll get to download them instantly.


Hainstock, Elizabeth G. 1997. The Essential Montessori: An Introduction to the Woman, the Writings, the Method, and the Movement. New York: Plume.

Lilliard, Angeline Stoll. 2005. Montessori: The Science behind the Genius. New York: Oxford University Press.

Montessori, Maria. 1965. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook: A short Guide to Her Ideas and Materials. New York: Schocken Books.

Montessori, Maria. (1949) 1967. The Absorbent Mind. Translated by Claude A. Claremont. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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